Che: Part Two opens Friday in select theaters
Steven Soderbergh's impressive, four-hour dramatization of the two defining battle campaigns of Ernesto "Che" Guevara has limited commercial appeal with none of the sentimental trappings of Walter Salles' more widely seen The Motorcycle Diaries, which recounted a road trip taken by the young, relatively apolitical medical student.
Cleaved into two halves, Soderbergh's film essentially tells a single story twice. The first iteration, the struggle in Cuba, is a triumph, and the second, the debacle in Bolivia, is a tragedy. In these pages last week, Nathan Gelgud praised the first half, which ends on a disquieting note as Che and the Castro-led July 26 Movement prepare to enter Havana.
The film's second half leaps forward a few years, during which time the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred and Che divorced his first wife and married Aleida March, whom he'd met during the fighting in Cuba. It's now 1965 and Che (Benicio Del Toro) has vanished from Cuba. Driven by unknown impulses—a taste for action and a commitment to worldwide socialist revolution, perhaps, or less charitably, vainglory—he left his young family and his duties as Cuba's minister of industry to rejoin the struggle against capitalist imperialism.
Soderbergh's film picks up the story in 1966, when Che sneaks into Bolivia disguised amusingly as a stiff, bald Uruguayan businessman. His mission is to establish a jungle outpost and train recruits for a guerilla warfare that would begin in the mining regions of the country, which contained the most radicalized Bolivians. But virtually from the outset the operation was a botch. The Bolivian recruits were unreliable, forcing Che to lean heavily on battle-hardened Cubans who were, in turn, mistrusted by the peasants in the region. While out in the field on a training march, the operation's cover was blown thanks to two deserters and a bumbling intermediary, a German Communist known as "Tania." Che and his motley crew spent the next six months on the run as the CIA-trained Bolivian army tracked and ultimately, ruthlessly, routed them.
There many reasons to recommend the film in its entirety, including its first-rate depiction of guerilla warfare, which Soderbergh no doubt appreciates as analogous to low-budget filmmaking (underfunded, overmatched groups of young people trying to achieve impossible dreams). What is especially striking to me about his project, however, is how much the two halves mirror each other. This isn't dramatic license at work, however—the film is rigorously researched and there seems to be little factual invention (the film's historical consultant is New Yorker reporter Jon Lee Anderson, who wrote an excellent biography of Che).
Che's decision to leave Cuba has always seemed something like the midlife crisis of a man pining for past glory—the analogy that comes to mind is that of a rock band that was hugely famous when its members were in their mid-20s. Indeed, the Fab Four of the Cuban Revolution was composed of brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, the charismatic free spirit Camilo Cienfuegos (memorably acted by Santiago Cabrera in the first half) and Guevara. These four were mostly well-educated white guys who grew their hair and beards, put on stylish hats, won a revolution and became the baddest men on the planet. But where do you go from there, after you've recorded the White Album, after the revolution has been won?
In Soderbergh's film, we see Che trying to make the magic of his youth happen one more time, as if replaying history would bring the same Hegelian-style, historically inevitable outcome. Accordingly, the two films have many similar narrative signposts. For example, both feature scenes involving underage volunteers: In Cuba, they prove to be valorous, while in Bolivia the kids are ideologically uncommitted and ultimately treasonous. Both halves include attractive young female followers (played by well-known actors Catalina Sandino Moreno and Franka Potente, respectively), but the former, Aleida, is a tough-minded fighter while the latter, Tania, is a careless liability. Most crucially, in Cuba, the fed-up populace is primed to explode against the Batista dictatorship; in Bolivia, the campesinos are accustomed to their harsh lives and (correctly) sense that involvement with the rebels will only increase their misery.
The Cuban triumph was an unlikely one: Only a handful of the 82 men who landed in the Sierra Maestra survived the subsequent fighting. In Bolivia, Che attempted to repeat that miracle, and instead suffered the fate he easily could have met the first time around.
Che was a lesser offender in the 20th century's gallery of overeducated megalomaniacs with guns, and perhaps on balance he was one of history's good guys. It's not clear how well he knew the writings of Abraham Lincoln, but Che might have avoided his fate if he have heeded the Great Liberator's modest reflection, late in his presidency, in 1864, "I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events controlled me."
With Soderbergh's magnificent (and already underrated) diptych, we see a man who surfed the wave of history in one revolution, and mistakenly thought he could create the waves himself in another.